Warning! Major spoilers ahead for Stranger Things season 3.
Stranger Things season 3 was a fun but flawed season of the Netflix Original Series, and one of its biggest problems was repeating the storytelling mistakes made by Game of Thrones. The eight new episodes of Stranger Things were great for spending time with characters we care about, but it also put an emphasis on attempting to shock the viewer, which is a familiar issue for fans of Game of Thrones.
Thankfully, Stranger Things season 3 largely avoided many of Game of Thrones' other issues, namely to do with pacing and logic. While the show isn't watertight in either department, it didn't have any overt problems there to drag the season down, meaning there hasn't been the same kind of backlash to Stranger Things as there was to Game of Thrones.
Stranger Things season 3 also had some unique issues, mostly to do with its unwillingness to change, but one of its biggest was to do with its use of and reliance upon creating a shock factor, which has rarely been the case on the series before. However, while we've seen this on Game of Thrones too, Stranger Things has the advantage in that it's not too late for it to change.
Game Of Thrones' Storytelling Changed After The Books
A lot has been made of the divide between Game of Thrones seasons 1-4 and 5-8, or in other words, the ones that closely followed George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books and those that left the source material behind. It's not an exact science - season 6 is one of the best - but the storytelling did begin to change. It isn't just that things were rushed and made less sense, because those things were mostly a problem in the final two seasons of Game of Thrones, but rather a shift from character-driven storytelling to plot-driven, and with that an added emphasis on shock value.
Game of Thrones was always a shocking TV show, but it wasn't one that tried to mislead you. Major events like the execution of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding are surprising, but they also naturally follow where the story has been building to. The shock comes in part from the fact they actually went through with those things, rather than an attempt at obfuscation. It furthers the surprise because these moments represent such a shift in direction, with the series regularly changing gear and keeping viewers on their toes. But again, it at the very least played fair with these twists, rather than deliberately hiding information from the viewer for the sake of a shock.
That started to change as Game of Thrones moved past the books. Arya killing the Waif is one such example, with the series keeping us as in the dark as the House of Black and White villain, all so it can lead to the shocking yet triumphant moment where Arya defeats her. The hastily written coup in Dorne is another case, and it gets worse in seasons 7 & 8. The Littlefinger/Sansa/Arya plotline is among the worst Game of Thrones ever produced, largely because it spent so much time trying to hide what was really going on from viewers, wanting to land the big surprise when Sansa turns on Petyr Baelish in the finale, but really just telling a bad story.
The plot to capture a wight is another case, layering shock (a wight bear!) upon shock (Viserion dies!) upon shock (he's reanimated!) but with little of the weight that used to accompany these twists. The same goes for Euron killing a dragon in season 8, which is a moment that comes out of nowhere because "Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet." The power in Game of Thrones' shocks used to come from how they completely changed the game, but they became lazier: the shocks became the story, rather than serving it.
Stranger Things Season 3 Overvalued The Shock Factor
Stranger Things is another big series that has already had some shocking moments, but again they were mostly earned. Bob Newhart dying in season 2 was sad, but it also fit in well with where the story had been taking him and the characters he was close to. But in season 3, it instead goes for the cheaper thrills of shock factor and loses out in terms of crafting a satisfying narrative as a result.
With Stranger Things season 3's emphasis on shock value, it means that like Game of Thrones before it, the series starts to withhold information, so we only learn of certain plans or events once they're relevant to the surprise, rather than seeing hints of their formation. It particularly does this with the Mind Flayer/Billy plot, only tending to dip into that side of the story when it wants to deliver a big reveal, often at the end of an episode, and it's in-part the entire purpose of the Terminator-esque Grigori. We learn very little of his plans or background, and instead he's simply dropped in to attack Hopper, or again to kill Alexei, which essentially makes him Stranger Things' version of Euron Greyjoy: a somewhat ridiculous, walking, talking swiss-army-plot-device.
Stranger Things season 3's other big shock value problem is another familiar to fans of Game of Thrones: wanting you to think that a character is going to die, only to save them at the last moment. This happened a lot in season 8 of the latter, especially at the Battle of Winterfell, while there were instances in season 7 as well. It's the same in Stranger Things, especially at both the hospital and then Starcourt Mall. At various points just about every character is in danger, from Nancy and Jonathan to later everyone in the car, but there's always a final savior from out of nowhere (and just as worryingly, it was almost always Eleven arriving in the knick of time).
This means that when the big deaths do come, like Billy's, it doesn't carry as much weight, while Hopper's own demise feels very similar to the Jon Snow death cliffhanger from Game of Thrones season 5, in that it's supposed to be a huge, emotional scene, but it's undercut by the fact that he's quite clearly going to return. It makes the real moments feel cheaper, and the shocks less shocking. It wants to get directly to the impact, but without the buildup that makes these sequences land so well.
Can Stranger Things Fix Things In Season 4?
Game of Thrones is over, which means that the problems with shock value in its final few seasons will go down as a part of its legacy. Luckily for Stranger Things, it still has a chance to turn things around. It has, at the very least, one more season left to run, and possibly even another after that, so it can move away from the shock tactics and get back to telling a story that is motivated by developing its characters and building the world.
They're two elements that, for the most part, were left behind in season 3. The status quo for the majority of the kids in Hawkins remained the same, at least until the very end when the Byers family moved, and elements such as the Upside Down or the other children who were experimented on like Eleven weren't touched upon. These are all things that Stranger Things season 4 should be looking to incorporate more of into its storytelling.
The biggest strength of Stranger Things is that it's created a group of characters its audience cares a lot about, and on top of that it built a world people want to understand more. They're two things it can use to drive the story forward, and with them it doesn't need to rely on simply shocking us. By putting the focus on character-driven narratives, it can then deliver true gut-punches that are foreshadowed or make sense based upon previous character actions, like Game of Thrones' Red Wedding, and are less shock for shock's sake like Euron killing Rhaegal. With Eleven's powers gone, Will temporarily out of Hawkins, and the Russians having a Demogorgon and (almost certainly) Hopper, then there is a foundation upon which it can build a much better story. Whether Stranger Things season 4 actually does that is another matter.